Gas crunch raises prices, tempers in Ariz.


PHOENIX - Tempers are beginning to fray in Phoenix, where a severe gasoline shortage now in its third day has forced thousands of motorists into round-the-block lines at filling stations.

Sparked by a ruptured pipeline in the desert, the shortage has kept people away from work while they hunt for gas stations that have managed to receive gas and remain open. Yellow police tape rings pumps at closed stations.

"This is ridiculous," said Mary Lechleiter, a nurse, who had just given another motorist a piece of her mind after he cut into the line at an Arco station on Thomas Road where she had been waiting to fill up for 45 minutes. "I expected to wait, but people aren't being civil. Normally I don't let things like that bother me, but this is not a normal situation."

Indeed not. Gas prices, which had only recently begun to edge downward, have climbed, with most hovering around $2. One filling station in Scottsdale, an affluent suburb, went over the $4-a-gallon mark, later dropping it by almost half after reporters showed up.

Fire department officials have warned people not to hoard gasoline, lest they start fires in their homes. At least one local radio station was giving updates about which gas stations had gas and where the lines were shortest. Some people even suggested that the sudden shortage here was artificial, a contrivance of oil and gas companies bent on inflating profits.

The explanation may be far simpler, but no more welcome. On July 30, the oil pipeline that runs from Tucson to Phoenix ruptured - it is not yet known why - spilling more than 12,000 gallons of refined fuel into the sand. The pipeline, the primary source of gas for the Phoenix area, remained operational until Aug. 8, when the company that runs it, Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, shut it as a safety precaution and began repairs. Since then, most of the gas that would have come from refineries in Texas has been trucked in, while a lesser amount arrives through a pipeline from a refinery in Torrance, Calif.

Yesterday, federal regulators approved Kinder Morgan's request to begin testing the newly repaired line, a process that involves pumping thousands of gallons of water under pressure into the pipe, and seeing if it leaks.

Meanwhile, drivers in Phoenix who are lucky enough to find gas are getting as much as they can, even resorting to filling plastic containers - which is illegal - when they think no one is looking.

"I was thankful I didn't have to push it up here," said Greg Mischel, a venture capitalist, as he pumped gas into his Jeep Cherokee at an Arco station, the third station he had tried. At the others, the lines had been too long.

Only the lowest-grade gas was available at the station. The price was $1.99. The higher grades would have been sold at $2.09 and $2.19, but the station ran out early in the crisis.

"I'll be interested to see how this runs on regular gas," said Jeanine Decker, who had waited in line for a mere 10 minutes to fill up her Infiniti Q45 and whose next car, she vowed, will run on alternative fuels.

"If we were in New York, we'd all be on public transport," she said. "I'm not panicked; I don't think it does any good. It doesn't fill my tank. If we all have to stay home, I guess we'll all stay home."

Decker, a homemaker, said that the opportunistic gas-station operators who had apparently engaged in price-gouging were "tacky," but that she was not surprised. "I hope they choke on it," she said.

The Arco station where Decker was filling up received a delivery of 10,000 gallons of gas at 9 in the morning. By 2 p.m., it was gone. Cars still waiting in line turned away, their quest resumed.

In the oppressive summer heat, some motorists waiting for a fill-up are getting overheated. "People are sitting in line, running out of gas, and getting hot," Torres said. "Some people are getting dehydrated. We're particularly concerned about older people."

The irritation of waiting for a fill-up is compounded by the rise in prices. "It's supply and demand, you know, and right now they've got the demand," said Adam Hendrix, a sales representative for an office-supply company. "I was kind of surprised at the $2 prices, but they can get it, so they're going to."

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